Monday, June 18, 2007

How To Do Things With Teaching

My favorite teacher as an undergraduate was a professor who had been denied tenure at the beginning of his career. There were a lot of reasons for it--institutional homophobia for one--but he was also very upfront with that he hadn't published very much early on. He hadn't, he once told me, because it took him almost ten years of teaching before he learned "how to teach." It worked out fine for him; he had been denied tenure in the history department, and unusually, the more liberal English department offered him a position. Twenty-five years later, he's a world-famous scholar and one of the most popular teachers at the university.

I've always been struck by his comment though, especially as I've become an academic myself and experienced what he was talking about. I finished grading the final papers for the class I have been a teaching assistant for. There's some paperwork left to, but basically, this was hopefully my last day ever as a TA. I'm not going to miss it. Once you've had the taste of leading your own class, with your own syllabus, your own standards, your own personality, it's hard to go back to the status of minion. I have enjoyed TAing this year more than most; I've had the same thirty students, all majors finishing up the history sequence, all year now, and it has been wonderful to actually get to know some undergraduates in the bureaucratic morass that is my university. I get to lead my own discussion section once a week, and do occasional guest lectures, and that has been very fulfilling.

But best of all, I do feel like this year I finally figured out how to teach. I've always felt like a bit of a fraud as a teacher. Not in terms of subject matter, but in terms of pedagogical authority in the classroom. I have often felt that I rely too much upon my own subject position: essentially, I am a tall white guy, and therefore my students automatically listen to me more than they do to others. I've seen the proof of this year after year. My very first experience teaching in a college-level situation was when I was a TA as an undergraduate, for a bunch of frosh taking a Mozart course. My co-TA and I lead Friday listening sessions; she was a short white woman, and I was, well, me. 6'2" and WASPy as all hell. And I most definitely do not have an aggressive personality, or even a very loud voice, and as a junior in college I sure didn't know what I was talking about. Nevertheless, the students were visibly more respectful of me than my counterpart.

So as I was saying, I feel like my first couple years teaching as a graduate student, I kind of coasted on my subject position. I didn't have to worry about what I wore, I didn't have to be concerned that I would be viewed as "bitchy" if I asserted myself. I could talk about race without the white kids tuning out. I did have to work on learning how to project my voice better. (Aside: at one of the first academic papers I ever gave, a very famous scholar who chaired my panel took me aside and told me, nicely, that I would never make it in academia if I didn't learn to speak louder. That was some very effective advice!) But that's no big deal. Yes, I occupy a slightly minoritarian subject position when it comes to sexual orientation, but honestly, that can carry its own sort of privilege in academia, especially if your everyday performance reads, as I think mine does, as mostly straight.

This is all to say that because I try to be fairly self-reflexive, it was hard for me to take much pleasure in my teaching abilities. But I do think I made some progress this year in figuring out how to use the reality of my own self for more effective teaching:
  • Rather than fight it, I have in some ways become more formal. When I taught my own class I almost always wore a jacket. (This might seem obvious to readers from elsewhere, but in Southern California seeing professors at all dressed up is very uncommon.) When I am actually gainfully employed as a professor, I can really see myself being the sort who wears a tie every day. I also rather enjoy lecturing my students in a rather haranguing fashion. Oddly, they seem to enjoy it too. Part of it is no doubt because my formality is paired with the fact that I am a big softie when it comes to grades and late papers, but I think it is more than that. Although I really appreciate pedagogical approaches that try to break down authority in the classroom, I don't think progressive teaching has to necessarily go that route. As any member in good standing of the queer community knows, authoritarianism doesn't have to be a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with a little dominance and submission, as long as everyone knows the safe word.

  • Which also means treating students with a degree of formality and respect. My favorite undergrad professor who I talked about above, ran a very tight ship. He didn't allow any questions at all while he was lecturing, but saved twenty minutes at the end of class for questions. Students addressed him as Professor X, but in return he addressed them as Mr. and Ms. Y.

  • I talked about myself a lot. This does two good things. One is that the students find it amusing. But it also introduces self-reflection. This is a good thing for college students. One of my typical sermons is about privilege. I have a lot of privilege, I tell them, and I list everything about me that makes me privileged. But the upshot is, everyone who is in a college classroom also has privilege. Privilege is not an on/off situation, it's a continuum. Everyone has at least some, and you've got to know how to deal with it.

  • More than anything, I've tried so hard to listen to my students. I always hate it when students, or even audience members at a conference or participants in a seminar, ask a speaker a question, and the speaker is so wrapped up in his or her own thoughts they don't actually listen to what the questioners are saying. Listening to what someone is saying isn't always easy, and it means thinking on your feet and often spouting stupid things in response, but I think listening is the single most important tool for getting students to stay engaged.

Obviously much of this won't work for everyone. And I hope I can keep self-reflective about my own teaching, just like everyone should. But I think I am finally at a point where I've learned how to teach. Watch out, world!


Doug Gentry said...

OK - I'll bite... What's the pedagogic advantage to authoritarianism? We see incoming frosh who have excelled in high school by taking good notes, following directions, and keeping mostly quiet in the classroom. In college we invite more analytic questioning, skepticism, and critical thinking. At one level it seems like authoritarianism pushes against the idea of a liberal education.

Caroline said...

I understood your professor's comment so differently than you! I really like your post, but I initially thought he'd meant the OTHER part of teaching: how to make the time to be BOTH a teacher and a researcher.

bbound said...

I do mean "authortarian" somewhat tongue in cheek! And certainly, my goal is also to get them to think critically and stop taking notes. (Kant supposedly used to forbid his students from taking notes in seminars, which I am always tempted to emulate. He also supposedly held his classes at 6am, so that only the most committed would come!)

I guess what I am talking about is trying to create a situation where everyone feels like they are an adult who is capable of contributing something important. And part of that, as I think about it, is modeling what that looks like for them. I don't want to create a situation that mimics friends chatting about something informally. I want to act like ideas have consequences, and that we will disagree with each other rather violently at times. And yet, I try to model, if we maintain this kind of formality and respect, we might together get something productive out of the disagreement. Ideally.